Family members are always doing something special for each other, but perhaps trainer Leo O’Brien’s selfless act for his son, Keith, is beyond the call of duty.
Since the training partnership has horses both at Saratoga and Belmont, someone has to mind the store in the concrete jungle of the downstate facility while the other gets to breathe in the country air of the Spa.
“I can’t very well say ‘you can’t go because I want to go,’” said the father recently as he continued to do his time supervising their 19 horses on Long Island while Keith, who recently turned 40, took care of the other 12 upstate.
“A lot of it has to do with the fact that the air is different. The surroundings are different,” said Colum O’Brien, 63, who like his father and brother is also a trainer. “It’s a fair atmosphere — not like a factory. I take the horses for long walks from here to the main track. The barns are wide open. It’s like in Europe.”
Like his brother’s, Colum O’Brien’s barn is a family affair: daughter Colleen Cummings, whose husband Jay Cummings has a horse with Colum, supervises the barn; his wife, Jacqueline, works around the stable and cooks for the family which stays at Colleen’s house in nearby Wilton, where she teaches seventh grade social studies. Colleen’s been in the horse business for years, first as a NYRA gap attendant and then in the administrative offices before teaching.
When he came as young single jump jockey riding for Raymond Guest, former ambassador to Ireland, Sidney Watters and Mike Smithwick, “I thought Saratoga was the most romantic place in the world,” said Leo O’Brien. So did his daughter, Leona, who was courted there and eventually married jockey John Velazquez, who still occasionally rides for his father-in-law.
The family (one prominent Saratoga handicapper calls them the “Obies”) has been a fixture at the Spa for nearly half a century, all three starting their careers as jump riders on the New York and European circuits before turning to training. A third brother, Michael O’Brien, 64, is a prominent steeplechase trainer in Ireland, who has been in a wheelchair since 1974 when a young horse suffered a heart attack going over a jump that sent the two crashing to the ground. Four years later, he took out his trainer’s license and has been successful at the Cheltenham Festival, in the Irish Grand National and many other prestigious Irish jump races. “The two O’Briens over here are poor — the one who stayed there is doing well,” Colum O’Brien said with a smile.
Though his brother was joking, the remark sells Leo O’Brien short. In 1991, his Fourstars Allstar, a full brother to Fourstardave, was the first American-based horse to win the prestigious Irish 2000 Guineas and in 1996, his 3-yar-old filly Yanks Music won four straight Grade I victories including Saratoga’s Alabama and three at Belmont where she beat the likes of Serena’s Song and Escena. O’Brien thought so much of her, he entered her in the Breeder’s Cup Classic against Cigar but an ankle injury kept her out.
If Yanks Music, who was euthanized in May because of intestinal problems, was his best horse, Fourstardave was his favorite. Nicknamed “The Sultan of Saratoga” for his record of wins eight consecutive summers at the Spa, Dave is one of three horses (along with an Irish horse Mourjane and A Phenomenon) buried in Clare Court, the shady training track on Saratoga’s backstretch. A small street, Fourstardave Way, is next to Siro’s Restaurant and until 2002 when he died suddenly of a heart attack while jogging at Belmont Park at age 17, he led a parade down Saratoga’s Union Avenue the morning of the Fourstardave Handicap (gr. III).
O’Brien is hard on himself about the death. “When he was brought up from Florida, I thought ‘He’s not going to handle this very well. He’s going to think he’s racing,’” he said. A plaque over Dave’s stall was only taken down recently for fear it would be stolen but in longtime fans’ minds, his disqualification from first to fifth in the 1993 West Point Handicap was the real theft he endured in his 100-race career (21-18-16). As torrential as one of those Saratoga thunderstorms, the boos seemed to go on forever.
Keith O’Brien was on Fourstardave when he died as he was on so many of his father’s horses from the time he could get a leg up. Keith was born on Aug. 23, 1968, on Long Island. His father couldn’t be there at his son’s birth because he was winning the Saratoga Steeplechase on a horse called Appollon. At age 14, Keith was riding regularly and at 21 he became a professional jump rider. He managed to fit in college and in 1990 graduated with a degree in political science from Holy Cross University in Worcester, Mass. In 2001, he took out his trainer’s license and became partners with his dad.
“I’ve always watched Pop and I learned that the most important thing is to be flexible with your horses and never get into a rigid pattern of training,” he said. “My dad likes to listen to his instincts. It’s important to have a routine, but each horse is different.”
Fourstardave, for example, enjoyed a pint of Guinness in his oats. Times have been lean lately for the O’Briens but their owners are buying more 2-year-olds so the training trio is optimistic that things will pick up.
At family gatherings with all of the aunts, uncles and cousins present, the talk usually turns to horses (Leo says they argue about them) but none are jollier than get-togethers in upstate New York.
“I always felt I belonged here,” Keith said echoing the sentiments of his father and uncle. “Coming to Saratoga is like coming home.”